Alva Vanderbilt Belmont
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Absorbing biography of a wealthy and strong-willed feminist

Read an IU Press blog interview with the author

A New York socialite and feminist, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was known to be domineering, temperamental, and opinionated. Her resolve to get her own way regardless of the consequences stood her in good stead when she joined the American woman suffrage movement in 1909. Thereafter, she used her wealth, her administrative expertise, and her social celebrity to help convince Congress to pass the 19th Amendment and then to persuade the exhausted leaders of the National Woman's Party to initiate a world wide equal rights campaign. Sylvia D. Hoffert argues that Belmont was a feminist visionary and that her financial support was crucial to the success of the suffrage and equal rights movements. She also shows how Belmont's activism, and the money she used to support it, enriches our understanding of the personal dynamics of the American woman's rights movement. Her analysis of Belmont's memoirs illustrates how Belmont went about the complex and collaborative process of creating her public self.

1. An Impossible Child
2. Every Inch a General
3. A Sex Battle
4. Immortalizing the Lady in Affecting Prose
5. Belmont's Orphan Child
6. The Last Word
Postscript: My Turn
Appendix: Belmont's Financial Contributions to Woman's Rights



Publié par
Date de parution 23 novembre 2011
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780253005601
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

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Unlikely Champion of Women s Rights

INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS Bloomington Indianapolis
This book is a publication of
Indiana University Press 601 North Morton Street Bloomington, Indiana 47404-3797 USA
Telephone orders 800-842-6796
Fax orders 812-855-7931
2012 by Sylvia D. Hoffert
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hoffert, Sylvia D.
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont : unlikely champion of women s rights / Sylvia D. Hoffert.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-253-35661-1 (cloth : alk. paper) - ISBN 978-0-253-00560-1
(electronic book)
1. Belmont, Alva, 1853-1933. 2. Belmont, Alva, 1853-1933-Political and social views. 3. Feminists-United States-Biography. 4. Suffragists-United States-Biography. 5. Women political activists-United States-Biography. 6. Women-Suffrage-United States-History-20th century. 7. Womn s rights-United States-History-20th century. 8. Socialites-New York (State)-New York-Biography. 9. Rich people-New York (State)-New York-Biography. I. Title.
HQ1413.B44H64 2012
1 2 3 4 5 17 16 15 14 13 12
1 An Impossible Child
2 Every Inch a General
3 A Sex Battle
4 Immortalizing the Lady in Affecting Prose
5 Belmont s Orphan Child
6 The Last Word
Postscript: My Turn
Appendix: Belmont s Financial Contributions to Woman s Rights
It is a Pleasure to thank those without whose help this book would never have been written and published. Like feminist reform movements, no book project can flourish without financial support. I would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A M University, the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A M University, the History Department at Texas A M University, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, for theirs. Laura Micheletti Puaca and Art Lindeman provided invaluable help as my research assistants in the early stages of this project. I am deeply indebted to Sarah Hutcheon and the archivists at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University for their assistance in accessing the documents in their collections. Paul Miller and John Tschirch of the Preservation Society of Newport County in Rhode Island and the archivists in the Special Collections Library at Duke University were both welcoming and helpful. My thanks also goes to Nancy Cott for inviting me to participate in the 2007 Schlesinger Library Summer Seminar in Gender History, Writing Past Lives: Biography as History, and to the participants who provided thoughtful critiques of an early draft of one of my chapters. Peter Filene, my former colleague at UNC, read the entire manuscript in one of its earlier versions and provided invaluable help in revising it. Rebecca Schloss, Kate Engel, Cynthia Bouton, and April Hatfield read and commented upon all of my chapters. Ruth Crocker, Robyn Muncy, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Kathleen McCarthy, Nancy Robertson, Wendy Gamber, and Theda Perdue offered me encouragement when I was much in need of it. Leon Fink, editor of Labor , graciously gave me permission to republish material taken from my article Private Secretaries in Early Twentieth-Century America. The Huntington Library, the Schlesinger Library, the Regional Oral History Office at the Bancroft Library, the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke, and the Preservation Society of Newport County gave me permission to quote from their documents. I am grateful to Bob Sloan, his staff, and the readers at Indiana University Press for their help. And finally, I thank my family, whose love and support have nurtured and sustained me for so many years.
Sylvia D. Hoffert Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, a wealthy New York socialite and militant woman s rights advocate, was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1853. But it took a lifetime for her to become what she was. The process of self-making that she engaged in was a complex and collaborative one that took place in constantly changing contexts. The stories she told about herself reflected that reality. As literary scholar John Paul Eakin has pointed out, such stories are a product of our ability to imaginatively use historical fact, memory, and circumstance to respond to our particular needs in a specific moment in time. 1 Thus, Belmont s understanding of herself was always fragmentary and to some degree fictive.
The story she told about herself and the stories others told about her are compelling and dramatic. Among other things, she married a millionaire, divorced him, and married a second. She forced her daughter to marry the most eligible aristocrat in Europe. After her second husband s death, she embraced the cause of woman s rights and then joined the National Woman s Party (NWP), which represented the most militant wing of the movement. It was largely her money that paid for both its suffrage and equal rights campaigns. She was not its only donor but she was certainly its most generous one.
The sources that document who she was and what she did provide the opportunity to explore the ways that lives are constructed and to relate that process of construction to the writing of autobiography and biography. Because self-making is rarely transparent, it presents a challenge to biographers, demanding that they work with layers of narrative texts created by a great number of people telling their stories in widely divergent contexts and at various periods in time. Biographers must deal with what their subjects say about themselves as well as what others said of them. From those sources, biographers must shape their own narrative, one that arises not only from their research and life experiences but also from the personal relationships that they have formed with the people they are writing about. 2 In that sense, all biographies are in part autobiographies. Or as literary critic Paul Murray Kendall put it, On the trail of another the biographer must put up with finding himself at every turn. 3
Belmont s financial support was crucial to the success of the suffrage and equal rights movements. But her contributions, like those of many philanthropists, came with strings attached. The result is that Belmont s story complicates our understanding of the interpersonal dynamics that characterized the American woman s rights movement in the early twentieth century and the strategic choices that militant feminists made as they carried out their various campaigns.
It was Belmont s financial support of the NWP that initially piqued my interest in her. Why, I asked, would a socially prominent, immensely wealthy woman in her mid-fifties, who had a vested interest in preserving the status quo and had shown no previous concern about the obvious social, economic, and political inequities that plagued the United States in the early twentieth century, suddenly become a feminist? Why did she donate money to the most militant wing of the woman s rights movement? And what were the consequences when she did?
Belmont was strong-willed, domineering, and determined to be the center of attention. What impact, I wondered, might identifying the tensions that resulted from her presence, how they manifested themselves, and the strategies that were used to resolve them have on our understanding and assessment of the woman s rights movement? And how might the master narrative of early twentieth-century feminism in America change if we placed at its center the story of someone who felt that she was bearing most of the burden for providing its leaders with enough financial support to carry out campaigns to promote suffrage and then equal rights?
In order to answer these questions, I structure my narrative of the life of Alva Belmont around an analysis of documents such as memoirs that are explicitly autobiographical as well as those with autobiographical dimensions such as court records, letters, and interviews written or dictated by those who, through their relationships with Belmont, participated in her self-making enterprise. 4 So this is as much a book about those who helped to make Belmont as it is about how Belmont made herself. Structuring my narrative in this manner allows me to highlight the complexity of her relationships with those who had the most influence on the way she portrayed herself. It also allows me to reflect upon the way in which the processes of self-making and the autobiographical documents describing those processes influence the writing of biography.
From the time she married in 1875, Belmont quite self-consciously attempted to position herself as a woman whose life was worthy of public notice. As Jo Burr Margadant has pointed out, no one invents a self apart from cultural notions available to them in a particular historical setting. 5 Alva defined her own womanhood and enhanced her newsworthiness by exploiting social, economic, and political fissures that allowed women ever-expanding opportunities for self-expression. In an effort to ensure that she received the attention that she craved, she solicited the cooperation of journalists who worked for large-circulation newspapers in New York City and elsewhere to turn herself into a social celebrity, thus guaranteeing that her name, that of her associates, and descriptions of their social and reform activities appeared regularly in the popular press.
What she discovered, of course, was that mercenary interest in selling newspapers often trumped truth telling (or telling the truth the way she wanted it told). She had no difficulty attracting the attention of the press, but she found it impossible to control what reporters had to say about her. One of her responses was to make an effort to tell her own story. So in 1917, she dictated a memoir to aspiring poet and social activist Sara Bard Field. 6 The manuscript that resulted described her life prior to her conversion to feminism and participation in the suffrage movement. Belmont must have found the process of remembering and self-revelation gratifying because two years later, she collaborated with Doris Stevens, a fellow suffragist acting as her secretary and companion, to produce an autobiographical account of her early involvement in the woman s rights movement. That short narrative took the form of an article. 7 Finally, sometime between 1928 and her death in 1933, she dictated yet another memoir to her then private secretary Mary Young. A much longer manuscript than the ones produced by either Field or Stevens, it expanded upon the topics she had previously decided would provide readers with an understanding of her character and an appreciation of her accomplishments. 8 It is clear that she originally intended to publish the first two manuscripts. Why she dictated the third is less obvious.
In each case, however, she tried to explain who she was, what she had done, and why she had done it. Belmont s conversion to feminism in 1909 had a profound impact on the content of her three memoirs. She apparently believed that her awareness of women s subordination was born in childhood. But it was not until she embraced the idea that something could actually be done to ensure that women had the same rights as men that she found a frame of reference for understanding the larger implications of women s inferior social, economic, legal, and social status. Expressing her feminist sympathies through political action first as a suffragist and then as an equal rights advocate served as an outlet for her pent-up anger and provided her with an opportunity to do something to challenge the control that men had over women s lives. Competitive to the core, she used the lens of feminism to convince herself that her life had more meaning than those of other rich women.
As her amanuenses listened to her reminisce, they took notes and then transcribed what they had written in order to produce a coherent narrative from their conversations with her. In doing so, each of them played an active role in shaping Belmont s story. Since it was up to them to interpret her words, Belmont gave them the opportunity to become something more than the ciphers she intended them to be. This is not to say that they consciously tried to distort her narrative. It is merely to suggest that they could not help but filter Belmont s testimony through their own values, political concerns, and personal experiences, thus making themselves a part of Belmont s story. Because they did so, the memoir manuscripts that they produced are both biographical in content and have unintended and unacknowledged autobiographical components. Field was more self-conscious and candid about her role as mediator than either Stevens or Young and, as we shall see, was quite frank about the ways in which she attempted to shape Belmont s reminiscences. 9 The result was that she framed the story she heard from Belmont into a narrative chronicling an emerging feminist awareness. Like Field, Stevens and Young actively shaped Belmont s story by telling it from their own perspectives. The difference is that we have to extrapolate from other evidence what their perspective was and how it influenced what they wrote. The challenge, then, is to untangle the complexities produced by the unwillingness or inability of Belmont to write her own memoir and to determine what the resulting manuscripts tell us about Belmont, her secretaries, and how their relationships shaped both her life story and the course of woman s rights activism.
After Belmont died, her ability to influence how her story was told ended, and others stepped into the breach. Shortly after Belmont s funeral, Stevens gave a deposition as the first step in her effort to file a claim against the Belmont estate. In it she described the time she spent with Alva, the work she did for her, and her feelings about the time they spent together. This 205-page document is as much a memoir as the three autobiographical essays dictated by Belmont. 10 Because its content is self-serving, it must be used with care. Nevertheless, its autobiographical component provides another perspective on how the interaction of two individuals helped to make both who they were and what they became.
Belmont s daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, the former Duchess of Marlborough, published her own memoir, The Glitter and the Gold , in 1952. In that book, Belmont emerged as the central figure in a domestic drama that was as tragic as it was compelling. When she published her autobiography, Consuelo was seventy-five years old and her mother had been dead for almost twenty years. But time had not diminished Consuelo s vivid memories of a childhood and adolescence spent under Alva s watchful eye. Incorporated into Consuelo s life story is a scathing diatribe against the woman who bore her, a dramatic depiction of their dysfunctional relationship, and a description of their eventual reconciliation. 11
In the late 1950s, scholars working for the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California-Berkeley began producing an oral history of the woman s rights movement. The first person they interviewed was Field. By the early 1970s Alice Paul, the NWP s leader and a woman who worked closely with Alva for many years, had agreed to participate in the program. By granting interviews, both of these women engaged in autobiographical enterprises intended to preserve a permanent and public record of their accomplishments. Each had something to say about Belmont, but despite their dependence on her financial support, neither considered her an important figure in their lives or central to the work that they had been engaged in. 12
Despite her efforts to leave a public record and thus guarantee that she would be remembered for her woman s rights activism, Alva remained invisible as a historical figure until 1976 when a graduate student at San Jose State University chose her as the subject for a master s thesis. For the next twenty-five years or so, historians-in-training outlined the story of her life, chronicled her many accomplishments, and tried to make a place for her in the annals of woman s rights history. Professional historians were not quick to follow their lead. Those who have written about the suffrage and equal rights movements have acknowledged her participation and financial contributions to both campaigns. But beyond that, they have not given her a central place in the movement that dominated her life and drained her purse for over twenty years. 13
All of those involved in making Belmont available for public consumption had a stake in the process. Belmont s self-absorption compelled her to do whatever it took to draw attention to herself. Society editors exploited her social celebrity to fill their columns and thereby further their careers. By virtue of the expectation that Belmont s secretaries also serve as her companion, they too were deeply involved with her personally, benefited from the advantages and physical comfort that living with her provided them, and acquired the money that she paid them to support themselves. However they felt about her personally, feminist co-workers in the NWP needed to express a certain degree of deference toward her in order to ensure that she would continue to support their work. Consuelo presented her mother in such a way as to convince herself once and for all that she was free of her control. By diminishing Belmont s importance to the woman s rights movement, Field and Paul enhanced their own. And graduate students exploited Alva s story as a way to fulfill their degree requirements.
What is striking about the picture that they collectively produced of Belmont is how consistent it was. Belmont described herself as an imperious, energetic, and accomplished individual who craved the attention of others and always insisted on getting her own way. Those who wrote about her pictured her the same way. At the same time, however, the portraits they constructed were highly individualized. It is as if, through their collective efforts, Belmont was transformed into the brightly colored crystals inside a kaleidoscope. Those crystals at rest and refracted through the lens form a coherent pattern. But as the kaleidoscope is passed from one hand to another, the crystals are rearranged. And in their reordering, they form a familiar but entirely new design. It is my job as Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont s biographer to make sense of it all while at the same time acknowledging that once I begin constructing her story, she will yet again be transformed by my rearrangement of the crystals.
Belmont seemed to have intuitively understood that even as she engaged in the process of self-fashioning in order to explain herself to others, she was revealing only partial truths about herself. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has put it, None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something [about the subject], we make up a good story. 14 For Belmont, engaging in an autobiographical project was not just a matter of self-awareness or even self-preservation; it was also an expression of her feminist sensibilities. It was within that frame of reference that she acknowledged her inability to be entirely forthcoming about herself. In a conversation with Field, she apparently said that she felt inhibited by the realization that men had traditionally used their patriarchal power to silence and distort women s voices. So much that women say is not the truth of their souls. They say things men have taught them it is becoming and fitting a woman to say, she observed. She claimed to understand the importance of expressing what she really thought rather than saying what she assumed others expected her to think or say. But she was also aware that she was a product of her time and place. She was determined to challenge male power and privilege, but in 1917 she was still experimenting with the methods that seemed best suited to fulfill her goals. She was outraged at having been publicly humiliated by her first husband s extramarital affairs. But she was just as upset about the snubbing she received from her friends and acquaintances when she had the gumption to divorce him. It made her painfully aware that women did not always support each other even when it would have appeared in their interest to do so. She took away from that experience a sense of the way that her gender and social background inhibited her ability to say what she wanted to say, particularly when it concerned relationships between men and women. I know I am not now in these pages revealing all that is essentially myself, she said. I know I am consciously holding back much and probably unconsciously distorting the truth of much that is written. The world is not ready for the whole truth not even from man and much less from woman, and we women are new at the business of self revellation [ sic ], she confessed. 15 What she had to say, she warned her potential readers, could not be considered true but rather a somewhat tarnished representation of the truth. 16 So, just as Pinker suggested, she made up a good story full of what she believed to be true combined with lies, exaggerations, mis-rememberings, and imaginings. The same can be said of those who wrote about her and their relationship with her. They all filtered her story through their memories and experiences to produce a version of the past that they hoped would be remembered as they, rather than others, told it.
So let us proceed to the representations of the truth that Belmont and her contemporaries left for us. Let us see how Belmont made herself and how they contributed to that process. What follows is a story of Belmont s life that begins with her birth, chronicles her role in the woman s rights movement, and ends with a discussion of how others constructed her life story after she died. Imbedded in the chronicle are layered narrative texts in which the boundaries between memoir, autobiography, biography, and oral history blur and the authority of the storytellers is contested, negotiated, and renegotiated as they go about the process of presenting their versions of the truth. 17
1 An Impossible Child
Alva Described Herself as an impossible child when she dictated her memoir to her private secretary, Sara Bard Field, in the summer of 1917. 1 Some fifteen years later, she claimed that she was probably the worst child that ever lived in yet another attempt to tell the story of her life. 2 Those who wish to leave a portrait of themselves for posterity are not usually so self-critical, but there was nothing typical about Alva. Given the evidence she provided to illustrate her point, it seems clear that she was proud of her unwillingness to behave herself and her determination to do as she pleased despite the predictable consequences. Her reputation as a holy terror meant that she got a great deal of attention. But that attention was not necessarily accompanied by the affection she craved. She spent her whole life searching for some way to reconcile her willfulness with her desire for love and friendship.
The middle child in a family of five children, Alva was born into an affluent slaveholding family in the seaport town of Mobile, Alabama, on January 17, 1853. 3 Her father, Murray Forbes Smith, grew up in Virginia and trained as a lawyer. Born in 1823, her mother, Phoebe Ann, was the daughter of Robert Desha, a cotton planter and politician whose family was originally from Kentucky. 4 He served as a member of the Tennessee delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1827 to 1831. During that time, he became involved in the political controversy surrounding the virtue of Margaret Timberlake Eaton, the wife of Andrew Jackson s secretary of war. The experience must have soured him on politics. He decided not to run for reelection in 1830, left Washington, and moved his family to Mobile, Alabama, where he established a business buying and selling cotton. 5
Mobile was a boomtown by the 1850s. Located thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the shimmering waters of Mobile Bay, it served as a commercial outlet for Alabama planters. 6 It was, said Hiram Fuller, a pleasant city of some thirty-thousand inhabitants-where people live in cotton houses and ride in cotton carriages. They buy cotton, sell cotton, eat cotton, drink cotton, and dream cotton. They marry cotton wives, and unto them are born cotton children. In enumerating the charms of a fair widow, they begin by saying she makes so many bales of cotton. 7 A foreign visitor fascinated by what he saw, Fuller could not resist the temptation to engage in a bit of hyperbole. But he was essentially correct. Most of the inhabitants of Mobile were in one way or another associated with commercial services needed to sell and transport cotton.
When her parents married in 1840, Alva s father gave up his law practice in Virginia and moved to Mobile where he joined his father-in-law in the cotton business. 8 His success in selling and transporting cotton enabled him to live in a two-story, stone house with a crenulated roof and substantial-looking Tudor arches over the front porch. Located on the corner of Government and Conception Streets, it stood in the most fashionable part of the city. 9 Its spacious rooms were bright and airy, with big windows and high ceilings. Its lawn, dotted with magnolia trees and well-tended flower gardens, provided the space for his children to play. Attached to the back of the house were screened-in porches, one on each floor, designed to protect the home s inhabitants from Mobile s bothersome insect population and the sweltering heat of the summer sun. A luxurious bathhouse tiled in marble sat in the backyard. Alva lived in this home until she was about six. 10
Alva explained her rebelliousness and refusal to conform to the expectations of others as a result of having been born into a family populated by individuals who, in her words, would stand neither for oppression nor even dictation. 11 She claimed that her mother s forebears had been French Huguenots from La Rochelle who fled religious persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They eventually found safe haven in Pennsylvania and then in the slave-holding South. 12
Her paternal great-grandmother, Margaret Stirling, was equally determined to thwart efforts to dictate how she lived her life. Her aunt, Jean Stirling, the wife of James Erskine, Lord Alva and Barjarg, reared Margaret after her mother died. Much to the consternation of her guardians, Margaret met and fell in love with Dr. Murray Forbes of Edinburgh, a respectable man but certainly not the sort they expected her to marry. When she refused to give him up, her family disowned her. The couple fled Scotland and eventually settled in Virginia. 13 It was from the likes of these that Alva claimed to have learned to appreciate the value of personal liberty and the costs of claiming it.
If, as she alleged, stories of her forebears encouraged her to insist on doing as she pleased, experiences in her childhood sensitized her to the subordination of women and convinced her that misbehaving was an effective way to get what she wanted. One of her earliest memories was the death of her thirteen-year-old brother, Murray Forbes Jr., in November 1857. 14 Apparently, he had been their father s favorite. When friends came to offer their condolences, she heard them say to her mother, Your husband will never recover from this blow. No one can take this child s place with him. Alva, who was four at the time, remembered being filled with hot resentment at the thought of her father s indifference to her. She simply could not believe that a dead son [was] worth more than a live daughter. 15 That incident served as her introduction to male privilege and the patriarchal social system that supported it. She, quite literally, never got over it.
She clearly believed that the story was important. She included it in her first autobiography written in 1917 and again years later in the memoir she dictated to her private secretary before her death. Indeed, the story had both profound implications and extraordinary explanatory power in the sense that it provided her audience with a partial but plausible explanation for why the campaign for woman s rights had such appeal to her. Who could quarrel with the idea that a little girl s heart was broken when she realized that her gender denied her the love of her father?
What is striking about Alva s account of her brother s death is that it is in spirit, if not in the exact words, the same story that Elizabeth Cady Stanton told in her memoir published in 1898. When Stanton was eleven, her elder brother died. He was, as she put it, the pride of my father s heart. Her father was inconsolable. Pale and immovable as he grieved at his son s bier, he seemed oblivious to her desire to provide him comfort. She stood for a long time watching him and then climbed into his lap. He mechanically put his arm about me and, with my head resting against his beating heart, we both sat in silence, Stanton wrote. At length he heaved a deep sigh and said: Oh daughter, I wish you were a boy! Stanton could not become the boy her father wished for, but she was determined to become as much like a boy as possible. She learned to ride horses and excelled in her schoolwork. But her father s only response to her academic and athletic accomplishments was to add insult to injury by observing again that she should have been born a boy. She admitted that thereafter her sorrow over her discovery that a girl weighed less in the scale of being than a boy was always on her mind. 16
It seems inconceivable that Belmont and Stanton responded to virtually the same childhood experience in exactly the same way. It is more likely that Alva read Stanton s memoir or heard some version of the story once she began associating with women who had been involved in the early woman s rights movement. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that she was even aware of Stanton s story let alone that she used it to frame her own narrative. What is important here is that, like Stanton, Alva used the tale to give credibility to her claim that she was predisposed to sympathize with those who were concerned about the gender inequities that characterized American society and that she needed only to find herself in circumstances that would encourage her to act upon those sympathies before she became a woman s rights convert.
Alva claimed that following the death of her brother, she became extremely sensitive about the devaluation of girls. Indeed, once she discovered that boys had more freedom to express themselves than girls, she refused to have anything to do with the daughters of her mother s friends and did what she could to avoid participating in their activities. 17 She resented the fact that her swimming suit, which had long sleeves and covered her from neck to ankles, weighed her down and inhibited her movements and that she was forbidden to ride horses around the stable yard because it was considered too dangerous. 18 It soon became obvious to her, as she put it, that women and girls were expected to play the part of spectators in the theatre of life while men and boys have the vivid action. There was a static quality to a girl s life, a monotony and restriction in it from which I rebelled from the very first, she said. 19
Rejecting what she called a girl s hot house existence, she claimed to have played only with boys so that she could enjoy the physical activities and independence that characterized their lives. 20 She rode her pony Dobin wherever she chose, sometimes to the beach, sometimes to the woods. 21 And with childish oblivion to the danger that was involved, she and her playmates rolled down the steep grassy slopes that led to the rocky beach in Newport, Rhode Island. As an adult she acknowledged that only the inscrutable law of Chance prevented them from dashing their brains out. 22
Determined to do anything that was necessary in order to preserve the prerogative of enjoying the freedom from excessive restraint with which she felt that boys were blessed, she asked for no special treatment from them. 23 I met them on their own ground, she said. I gave blow for blow. I accepted any challenge. I stopped at nothing attempted. 24 But she sometimes had to defend her right to participate in their activities. Take the case of Pepe del Vallay, who came to visit her playmate Fernando Yznaga in Newport one summer. When Pepe expressed distaste for playing with a girl, he influriated her but she took no action. One day, however, after she had scrambled up an apple tree, Pepe removed the ladder that she had used to reach its high branches. And when she began to climb down, he pelted her with apples. Dodging the fruit, she claims to have come down that tree like a monkey. By the time she was on the ground, she was livid. Oblivious to her bleeding hands and skinned knees, she ran after the fleeing Pepe, threw him down, choked him, and stomped on him, all the while screaming, I ll show you what girls can do. She recalled that spectators stopped the fight and that she was temporarily excommunicated from polite society for her efforts. But well into her sixties, she continued to be proud of having defended her right to play with the boys. 25
Not surprisingly, Alva was the bane of her mother s existence. The combination of rebellion and daring were difficult for her to meet, she admitted. 26 As the mistress of a house filled with slaves and children, Phoebe was in charge of discipline. According to Alva, she relied on wise and simple reasoning when it was possible but resorted to corporeal punishment when she thought her children or servants deserved it. Alva maintained that while her mother found it necessary to punish her often, the whippings she administered were always delivered in love not anger. 27 Family lore maintained that one year she received a whipping every day. But neither corporeal punishment nor the threat of it proved an effective deterrent. I knew it would be the inevitable consequence of my actions just as death is the inevitable result of life, she confessed. She considered the punishment she received both deserved and unavoidable but found that the joy she experienced doing what she wished more than made up for the whippings, unpleasant and painful as they must have been. 28 So anticipating and accepting the storm and chastisement that were the inevitable consequences of her willfulness, she simply wore her mother down. Behavior, once proscribed and often repeated, eventually went unnoticed. 29 In retrospect she came to believe that there was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards. 30 As an adult, the conviction that rebellion and victimization were inextricably intertwined prepared her to accept the consequences of rejecting or thwarting social convention when it suited her interests to do so. Her mantra seems to have been I will do what I please, I will be punished, I will persevere, I will triumph.
Alva s determination to dominate those around her also exhibited itself at an early age. The fact that she was living in a slave-owning society only encouraged her in that regard. On Sundays in Mobile, for example, she remembered watching out the library window in great anticipation for her godmother to drive up to the house to pick her up for dinner. When the liveried coachman pulled the barouche up to her godmother s house, Alva found a small group of slave children waiting for her in the drive. She remembered spending the rest of the day tyrannizing them. She denied that she physically harmed them, but she recalled being very conscious of [her] superiority and contemptuous of their apparent willingness to submit to her mistreatment. That being the case, she lost no chance to assert [her] masterful position. 31
When Alva was about six, her family moved to New York City. 32 It is unclear why her father abandoned his business and stately home in Alabama to move north. The panic of 1857 may have undermined his credit. Increasing sectional tensions may have forced him to choose between regional loyalty and commercial opportunity. There is also evidence to suggest that her mother was unhappy living in Mobile. Phoebe reputedly had social ambitions and spent vast amounts of money regularly hosting lavish entertainments. But for some reason those whom she hoped to impress remained aloof. According to one gossip, Some people ate Mrs. Smith s suppers, many did not. There was needless and ungracious comment, and one swift writer pasquinaded her social ambition in a pamphlet for private circulation. 33 Subjected to public humiliation, Phoebe may have been more than willing to find another milieu for her efforts to establish herself as a leader of society.
Whatever the couple s motivation for moving, Murray Smith s choice of New York was a calculated one. New York had long provided southern cotton merchants with credit, insurance, transportation, and marketing services. But the nature of the trade between New York and Mobile had gradually changed over the years. Originally cotton traders had sent their heavy, burlap-wrapped cotton bales to New York for transshipment to markets in New England, Liverpool, or Le Havre. By 1859, they had begun to cut costs by shipping their cotton directly to their customers. Still dependent on New York for financial services, however, they shipped samples of their cotton and bills of lading to agents in New York. 34 Alva s father had every reason to believe that his knowledge, experience, and connections would help to ensure his success in this lucrative business.
The change of scene may have improved her parents prospects, but it did nothing to improve Alva s behavior. When it became clear to Phoebe that the nursemaids could not handle Alva, she assigned one of the family slaves to entertain her daughter and keep her out of trouble. His strategy for getting her to do what she was supposed to do was to bribe her by treating her to a trip to the market and then to the stables before he escorted her to school. He was, Alva recalled, the first one who ever tried through any other means than the rod to direct my imperious rebellions. She claimed, however, that his success in controlling her depended upon her willingness to obey. In essence, she pictured herself as managing him instead of the other way around. When she was with Monroe, she said, she got what she wanted. I bossed him, she confessed. It was a case of absolute control on my part. 35
When she could not stop someone from restricting her activities, she simply devised strategies to neutralize their efforts. Take the case of one of her governesses. As far as Alva was concerned, the woman s chief purpose in life was to thwart the things I most wanted to do. For example, the governess was willing to allow her to play on the beach, but she would not let her swim in the ocean. One day [the governess] was sitting on a wooden bench in a new silk dress the folds of which were spread out all about her, Alva remembered. Determined to jump into the waves as they crashed ashore, Alva persuaded some of her friends to distract the governess by dancing and whooping loudly while she and the others went behind the unsuspecting woman. With tacks in hand, they attached the skirt of the governess s dress to the bench so that she would be in no position to stop them when it became apparent that they were headed for the water. The governess tried to rise and detain us but she was held fast and every move she made endangered the precious new silk dress. These were the lawless ways in which I got results, she confessed. 36
Contempt for authority also manifested itself in her relations with her piano teacher. While she loved to draw, she claims to have loathed her music lessons. She remembered having an Italian music teacher who took umbrage at her unwillingness to practice. One day, in complete frustration, he took her fingers in his hands and pressed them onto the correct keys. She turned around and without hesitation slapped him in the face and then rushed out of the room declaring that she would never take another music lesson. Her embarrassed mother no doubt punished her. But her piano lessons stopped. 37
And then there came the day when Alva decided that she no longer wanted to sleep in the nursery. When through argument, persuasion, and attempted arbitration she failed to convince her mother to allow her a room of her own, she decided to be so hateful and disagreeable that the nursemaid and governess would eventually insist that she be removed. She took a bath towel and with awful deliberateness smashed all of the little china figurines on the mantel of the nursery. Then with cool but vicious strength, she attacked the framed picture above them. She may have received a memorable whipping for her destructiveness. But she emerged triumphant. Just as she had anticipated, she was banished from the nursery and allowed to sleep by herself. 38
All of these childhood experiences fed Alva s sense of power and entitlement. By the time she was an adult, she had a reputation for being bossy and domineering, characteristics that did not endear her to friends and associates. But she claimed that her willingness to deal with the consequences of thwarting social convention gave her the courage to do so.
Despite their southern background, the Smith family remained in New York during the Civil War. It must have been difficult for them. Alva s father had no compunction about slaveholding. 39 In 1850 he owned nine slaves-three women, two men, and four children, whose ages ranged from one to fifty-five. 40 It is unclear how many of them he took with him to New York City or exactly what their status was when they got there. While New Yorkers were implicated in slavery by virtue of their economic interests, they did not condone the system. The legislature of New York abolished slavery in 1827. In 1841, it repealed a law that had allowed southerners visiting the state to keep their slaves for a period of nine months. 41 When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857, New Yorkers were outraged at the suggestion that slaves residence in free territory did not constitute the grounds for claiming their freedom and citizenship. 42 So as he made plans to move north, Alva s father must have realized that he could not reside in the state and treat those who had been his slaves in Alabama as if they were still in bondage. Apparently he accommodated New York law by keeping them as unpaid servants and providing them with room, board, clothing, and pin money. According to Alva, Everything was given them, and if they by chance wanted something more, or any cash, they asked for it, and got it. 43
Alva remembered hearing slavery discussed at the dinner table. Her father apparently sensed that the South s peculiar institution was doomed. If that proved to be the case, he believed that a gradual approach to emancipation was necessary in order to give slave owners time to adjust to a free labor system so they could maintain the productiveness of their land. Alva found it painful, she said, to see her father torn between his convictions and his emotions. 44
It was one thing to debate the issue of slavery in the privacy of one s home. It was something else altogether to be subjected to the moral judgment of one s minister every Sunday morning. The Smiths were Episcopalians and members of the Church of the Ascension in New York City, which stood next door to their house. Their minister, the Rev. John Cotton Smith, apparently felt duty bound to give sermons berating the slaveholders in his congregation about the sin they were committing by owning and exploiting the labor of other human beings. Rather than sit in silence listening to his criticism, the Smiths joined other southern families in his congregation by withdrawing their membership in protest. 45
Such behavior made them suspect. During the war they had to be careful not to attract attention to themselves, but there was little reason for them to be concerned about their safety. New Yorkers had strong commercial and financial ties to the South. Before the war began, the sale and shipment of southern cotton brought close to two hundred million dollars worth of business into the city. Southern planters and cotton factors owed New York financial institutions about the same amount of money. New York newspapers had large subscription bases in the South. The city was a center for the illegal slave trade. And southern planters also had strong personal ties with New Yorkers. They vacationed with them in Saratoga Springs, and their daughters and sons married each other. 46 Moreover, as the war progressed, New York City became a refuge of sorts for southerners trying to escape the devastation of their homes and the problem of dealing with an increasingly unreliable labor force. 47
Ambivalent about Abraham Lincoln, the Smiths became reluctant mourners when he was assassinated on April 15, 1865. Lincoln and his war effort did not have strong support among New Yorkers, but they were determined to pay him tribute. Out of respect, they lowered their flags to half-mast, closed their businesses, and placed black rosettes on the curtains of their windows. When his body arrived in the city, church bells tolled and military bands played funeral dirges. 48 So when the Smith family took no immediate public action to demonstrate their grief, Alva remembered that someone threatened to throw ink through their front windows. Phoebe responded sensibly by hanging three black bombazine bows on the front of their house. 49
Realizing that it would be some time before he and other New Yorkers could establish normal trade and financial arrangements with their former southern customers, Alva s father began to feel that his position in New York was untenable. So he sold their Fifth Avenue house to Chicago entrepreneur Cyrus McCormick and moved his business to Liverpool and his family to Paris. Alva, her mother, and her sisters Armide, Jenny (Mary Virginia), and Julia lived in an apartment on the Champs- lys es off and on for the next three years. 50
When they arrived, they found a whole community of American expatriates living in Paris. The city attracted many visitors, some of whom stayed longer than they had originally intended. During the early years of the Second Empire, Louis Napoleon had begun transforming the city into a modern metropolis with wide boulevards and tree-lined avenues. New parks provided Paris s citizens with space for relaxation and entertainment. 51 The court of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie was gay and inclusive. At court festivities that could include as many as five thousand guests, titled aristocrats hobnobbed with self-made men and foreigners, especially those with money and marriageable daughters. Eugenie spoke English and enjoyed Americans. 52 So Phoebe and her eldest daughter, Armide, were invited to receptions and parties where they met members of the French nobility as well as such notables as John Slidell, the former Confederate diplomat, and Marion Sims, the American gynecologist. 53 Alva was only twelve or thirteen when they arrived in Paris, so she had to watch from the sidelines while her elegantly dressed mother and older sister enjoyed themselves.
During their sojourn in Paris, Alva s mother absorbed the principles of French interior design and fashion established by the empress. Eugenie s approach to decorating was innovative. She upholstered her walls in silk and filled her private salon with bouquets of flowers. The living quarters of her palaces were elegant, as was befitting royalty, yet designed with comfort in mind. 54 She also established herself as a trendsetter in the area of women s fashion by introducing the cage crinoline in 1856. From then on, whatever Eugenie wore became popular among Parisian women who could afford to pay enormous sums for the elaborate Worth dresses that became her hallmark. Wealthy women in London and New York began ordering their clothes from Paris, thereby making adherence to French fashion one of the criteria for judging each other s social acceptability. 55
Before her arrival in France, Alva had resisted attempts on the part of her parents to educate her. She was inquisitive and intelligent. Indeed, she claims that she was crazy for knowledge. 56 But she found books too full of theories and abstractions to be of any interest, and she rebelled against the pedagogy of the day which demanded vast amounts of memorization. 57 She resented the fact that no one was willing to accommodate her individual learning style. Education, instead of being fluid and poured into the mould of each individual was itself a mould into which all individuals were poured-especially in the case of girls-to be turned out exactly alike, she complained years later. 58 She found that interacting with real people was preferable to sitting at home doing her lessons and that what stimulated her intellect was contact of mind with mind and the friction of thought that conversation encouraged. 59 Adult dinnertime discussions engaged her imagination, and she thoroughly enjoyed taking notes on sermons delivered by Rev. Dr. Coahrelle, the minister at the French Protestant Church she attended. The minister was a brilliant man, she noted, and it gave me a particular thrill to feel myself getting his thoughts and recording them in orderly sequence. 60 Trips to Germany, Austria, France, and Italy made the world her school because it put her in contact with interesting people. 61 Travel seems to have satisfied both her hunger for knowledge and her appreciation of art, history, and geography. 62
Sometime after her arrival in France, she asked her parents to send her to an expensive boarding school run by Mademoiselle Coulon located in a chateau with a beautiful garden surrounded by a high wall on the outskirts of Paris. Schools tend to be regimented institutions, and submitting to discipline was not Alva s strong suit. Most of the students at Coulon s school were French with a few English and American girls thrown in for good measure. 63 So Alva leveraged her Americanness into a license to behave as she wished. While other students were forced to eat whatever was put in front of them, she was allowed to leave her vegetables on her plate. 64 And while her classmates lived by routine and rule; clock and bell, she made sure the rules did not apply to her. She remembered spending hours in the top of a tree so high that none of the others could climb into it. The old gardener would stand below and plead with me to come down which I only did when I was self-persuaded. 65
When she could not get attention by breaking the rules, she got it by causing a sensation. One evening a week, the students, carefully coiffed and dressed in their best clothes, appeared in the headmistress s drawing room to learn how to behave in polite society. Bored to tears by such exercises in deportment, Alva decided to do something to liven them up. She was the proud possessor of a head full of heavy, luxurious, dark-red hair. So one evening before she entered the room, she arranged it loosely. And when she appeared in the doorway of the headmistress s salon, she dramatically let the whole great mass down and came in looking like the wife of the wild man from Borneo. Mademoiselle Coulon was not amused. 66
It is not clear what the other students thought of her. She apparently made few attempts to befriend anyone other than two other American students, Minnie Stevens and Jessie Duncan. 67 Indeed, she was quite capable of making the lives of other students miserable. One day, for example, she found a fellow student from England crying because she had been assigned to present a report on Mary Queen of Scots and did not know how to do the research. Alva offered to help her. Her misery ought to have nipped in the bud the practical joke which was forming in my mind, but it didn t, Alva later remembered. As fast as the poor little English girl could write, I dictated the following amazing essay. The story that she dictated was as imaginative as it was ahistorical. And when her classmate read the essay before the other students and the headmistress the next day, they were astounded to hear that after Mary had embarked from France to claim her throne in Scotland with a retinue of royal people in a galley decorated with flags and royal regalia, her ship sank in the fog off the coast of France and nothing further was heard of her. Alva remembered that when Mademoiselle Coulon heard that Mary had drowned before she had the opportunity to lose her head at the hand of her cousin Elizabeth I, an unforgettable look of shocked dismay spread over her face. Where upon the headmistress stopped the recitation and lectured the poor English girl for not reading history before she attempted to write it. 68
Alva enjoyed her time at Coulon s school. Predictably she performed badly, so her teachers recommended that her parents remove her. She willingly admitted that she was learning nothing but French and that her parents were wasting a great deal of money by keeping her there. But she did not want to leave. After all, as she put it, I had had my own way all the time. I was a law unto myself. So tearfully she returned home. 69
Having rejected conventional attempts to educate her, she simply devised her own way of engaging in intellectual activity and eventually developed an approach to learning that depended as much upon lived experience as it did on reading books. Indeed, she maintained that her approach to educating herself had a profound impact on what she called her inner life, setting the stage for her eventual emergence as a social reformer. 70
By 1869, life in Paris, which had been so exciting and pleasant for most foreigners, was becoming increasingly difficult. Phoebe and her daughters had to have been aware that the cost of living was rising and the political situation was becoming more and more unstable. Those who opposed Louis Napoleon s regime had begun rioting in Bordeaux and Toulouse in 1868, and by 1869 political unrest had spread to the capital city. By June of that year, troops filled the streets of Paris in order to prevent working-class mobs from attacking the city s well-dressed, influential citizens. As the atmosphere became more and more menacing, foreigners began deserting the city in droves. 71 The Smiths were among them.
When the family returned to New York, Alva s father rented a house on 33rd Street, which her mother furnished tastefully in the Parisian style with furniture she had shipped from France. 72 Phoebe lived in that house for only two years. She died of inflammatory rheumatism on August 18, 1871, at the age of forty-eight. 73
Alva was devastated by her mother s death. Having been dismissed by her father as inconsequential at the age of four, she spent her entire childhood and adolescence in perverse attempts to guarantee that she received the attention she thought she deserved from the only parent who seemed to care enough about her to discipline her. Despite the whippings she received on a regular basis from Phoebe, she claims to have cared for her mother deeply. 74 She was, she said, the governing and controlling influence in my rebellious life. 75
When she dictated her first memoir more than forty years after her mother s death, Alva still found it hard to describe her sense of loss. When I try to tell what her death meant to me, she said, I come up against a great blank wall of feeling for which there is no adequate expression. 76 She remembered thinking that she had lost her best and truest friend. 77 But rather than succumbing to tears of grief, she claimed to have compensated for her sense of loss by writing daily missives to some Great Person, an Invisible Being who took the form of her mother. She also decided to honor her mother s memory by taking up where her mother left off in order to become what she would have me be. Toward that end, she initiated a campaign of self-improvement intended to instill in herself the sort of self-discipline that her mother had tried to teach her through entreaty, example, and, when necessary, punishment. 78
Her mother s death may have been a personal tragedy for Alva, but it also had social implications that would affect her future. Just before her mother died, Alva s parents began the process of introducing her to society. But a death in the family meant that she could not attend parties until a year of mourning had been observed. So it was not until the fall of 1872 that Alva was free to attend theater and skating parties with other young people whose families, while not necessarily a part of the most exclusive social circles in the city, were certainly upwardly mobile and socially ambitious. Her closest friends were those she had met during summers in Newport or at school: Consuelo Yznaga, Minnie Stevens, and Jessie Duncan. But she also associated with young people from old New York families with names such as Cooper, Livingston, and Jay, all of whom had impeccable social credentials. Together they modeled their social activities on those of their parents. For the older crowd there was the Patriarchs Ball, sponsored by a prominent group of men who drew up a guest list that included members of the social elite. For the younger crowd, there was the New and Notables Ball held at Delmonico s restaurant. 79
It was after her mother s death that she got to know William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of the fabulously wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt. 80 The Vanderbilts had made their money in transportation. Cornelius, known as the Commodore, began his climb to fame and fortune by initiating a ferry service from Staten Island to Manhattan. He invested his profits from this venture in steamships and then in railroads. In 1869 he consolidated his holdings by forming the New York Central Railroad. Like Carnegie and Rockefeller, his business practices were often ethically questionable and sometimes dishonest. A brilliant businessman, he lived to make money and accumulated an immense fortune. By the time Alva met his grandson, the Commodore was worth an estimated 100 million.
It was a good thing that the Commodore took no interest in what people thought of him. Vulgar, uncharitable, and barely literate, he was not the sort to seek a position in New York society. He associated with whom he pleased without regard to their social position. Among those who sat at his dinner table were the disreputable Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claffin, a spiritualist whom Vanderbilt found charming and entertaining. 81 His children, of course, had their own social aspirations. And his grandchildren, properly schooled and well mannered, were a part of the fashionable set with whom Alva associated.
Born on Staten Island in 1849 and educated in the United States and Switzerland, William Kissam Vanderbilt began working for his grandfather s railroad when he was nineteen. 82 It is unclear where he met Alva or how much free time he had to spend with her. She invited him to her home for an informal reception on at least one occasion, but entertaining and maintaining the illusion of affluence became more and more difficult as her father s business began to fail.
According to Alva, Murray Smith was a man of the old school who believed that no man was considered worthy to deal with who could not show credentials from his Business Career proving his integrity and trustworthiness. 83 He believed that a man s word was his bond and that a contract could be signed with a handshake. The result was that he was unable to adapt to the impersonal and ruthless business methods that laid the foundation for the accumulation of post-Civil War fortunes. He found himself living in a world where business was no longer conducted between men who knew and trusted each other. A world in which entrepreneurial businessmen watered the stock in their companies, reneged on their agreements, lied to their business partners, exploited their laborers, and cheated their customers was not a world he understood or had much sympathy with.
Those who, like Smith, refused to master what Alva called the art of clever manipulation found themselves unwilling or unable to compete. 84 Their businesses no longer flourished. It did not help, of course, that overspeculation in the construction of railroads and stock speculation at home and abroad plunged the country into a severe depression when on September 18, 1873, the investment bank run by Jay Cooke declared bankruptcy. What followed was a financial disaster. Railroad stocks plummeted, the New York Stock Exchange closed, and people crowded into banks to withdraw their deposits. When the government refused to intervene, the panic spread across the country. By midwinter in New York, hundreds of businesses had failed, the value of real estate had plummeted, and 25 percent of all workers had lost their jobs. Those who remained in the workforce saw their salaries decline and their prospects disappear. 85
In the midst of such economic chaos, there was little Alva s father could do to protect himself from the financial embarrassment that would result in what appeared to be his impending business failure. The prospects of borrowing money to tide him over until the economy recovered were dim. So he moved his family to a cheaper house on 44th Street, encouraged them to economize, and joked about having to open a boarding house to make ends meet. He faced a grim future. He had four daughters with no marketable skills. Even if there were jobs to be had, they were in no position to contribute to the family s income or support themselves. It is not surprising that the stress of trying to keep up appearances began to affect his health. 86
Murray Smith was from a generation who personalized the prospect of business failure. A man whose enterprising spirit and business success provided him with self-confidence, social status, and personal autonomy as well as the ability to provide for his family, he enjoyed the esteem of his contemporaries and assurance that he was fulfilling his manly responsibilities. Like other men of his day, he seems to have considered the prospect of insolvency to be the result of some personal inadequacy on his part rather than the result of economic factors beyond his control. His sense of impending failure and the loss of confidence in his manhood that typically accompanied it made it difficult for him to carry on. 87
Whether to relieve himself of the need to feed his children for a few months or, as Alva remembered, because he wanted them to get to know their Virginia relatives, he sent them south in the summer of 1874 to visit his sister who lived near Culpepper, Virginia, located on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains halfway between Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. Before the Civil War, the Smiths of Virginia had prospered by growing long-staple cotton on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. But the war and the loss of their slaves left them living in what can only be described as genteel poverty. Alva remembered that their spacious house looked shabby, the buildings on their property were in need of repair, and they seemed to have trouble convincing former slaves to engage in productive labor. Despite their reduced circumstances, they were determined to be as hospitable as their circumstances allowed and lavished their cousins with attention and vast amounts of food, which they apparently had in abundance. 88
After spending time with her relatives, Alva traveled on to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, a resort community where southern families had built cottages before the Civil War so that they could enjoy the cool temperatures that the mountains provided. There she joined Lucy Oelrichs and Minnie Coster, friends from New York. Chaperoned by Lucy s mother who had southern connections, they stayed in what were by then quite dilapidated cabins and danced with young but clearly impoverished southern men at the Greenbrier Hotel. Lucy s beau, with William Kissam Vanderbilt in tow, came down to see them. 89
Willie K., as he was known, proposed to Alva before they all returned to New York. The couple announced their engagement in the fall. On April 20, 1875, they married in Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City and then moved into a house on 44th Street given to them by William s father. 90
There is no evidence that Alva married for love. But there is certainly reason to believe she married for money and social status. Her family may not have secured their claim to membership in the highest echelons of New York society, but they were on its periphery and ambitious. 91 And while Alva may not have appreciated precisely how bankruptcy might affect her material well-being and her family s future, it is clear that her father s anxiety about his declining fortunes made an impression on her and that she had no enthusiasm for living in poverty.
Alva may have been willing to admit that she was headstrong and domineering, but she was not willing to admit that she was a fortune hunter. When she told the story of her courtship and marriage, she preferred to assume the role of a self-sacrificing heroine. She claimed that her motive for marrying when she did was to save her family from the embarrassment and discomfort that was certain to accompany what they believed to be their impending destitution. Marrying into the Vanderbilt family, she said, was the only practical thing she could do under the circumstances. 92 Not only would it ensure that she would be able to take care of her as yet unmarried sisters, but it also would give her father, whose health was deteriorating rapidly, some peace of mind. 93
As it turned out, she never had to assume responsibility for supporting the rest of her family. Two weeks after her wedding, her father died of a heart attack. 94 Whatever concern he may have had about the fate of his business, Murray Forbes Smith died a man of property who left his only son, Desha, 20,000 in cash and his four daughters the remaining proceeds from 1000 shares of Toledo, Peoria, and Warsaw Railroad stock estimated to have been worth 81 a share. 95 That sum invested wisely should have provided Alva and her sisters with an adequate income at least until they married. As it turned out, the only one who did not find a husband to support her was Armide. Jenny married Fernando Yznaga and then William Tiffany. Julia married the Comte de Fontenilliat. 96
In an offhand remark made years later, Alva suggested that had her father died sooner, her whole life would have been different. 97 It is unclear what she meant by that statement. One possibility is that she came to believe that if she and her siblings had known of their inheritance before her wedding, she would not have married William Kissam Vanderbilt. But of course, by the time she made the comment, her first marriage had failed, she had divorced the father of her children, and she was still bitterly resentful of the punishment she was subjected to for having done so.
However she felt about her father s death, it smoothed the way for her integration into the Vanderbilt family. William H. Vanderbilt, her new father-in-law, used the occasion to assure her that he was willing to act as father surrogate should she feel the need of his support. And the old Commodore, always one to take an interest in a pretty lady in distress, offered her the use of his old homestead on Staten Island for a summer holiday when she mentioned that she enjoyed spending time in the country. She not only took him up on his offer but renovated the place. 98
2 Every Inch a General
Becoming a Vanderbilt provided Alva the opportunity to engage both literally and figuratively in a wide variety of construction projects. The most tangible of them were the houses that the fortune she now had access to made it possible for her to build on Long Island, in New York City, and in Newport, Rhode Island. 1 But she also defined motherhood as a kind of constructive work that demanded that she devote herself to building her children s characters and providing them with the equipment she thought they would need to succeed in the life she planned for them. 2 She spent an astonishing amount of time quite self-consciously exploiting the press in an effort to make herself into a social celebrity. And she attributed her desire to build a strong woman s rights movement both at home and abroad to her constructive instincts. 3
Alva traced her passion for architecture and engineering to her childhood. She claimed that one of her first memories was of lying on the floor of her father s library building houses out of his books. I can remember the sustained absorption with which I planned the passage ways, doors, windows and rooms of my book houses, she said. 4 During her sojourn in Paris in the 1860s, she recalled the pleasure she derived from sitting on park benches sketching the outlines of the buildings she saw before her. 5 And during a summer spent in Newport, she remembered recruiting her friends to help build a stone bridge from the shoreline of the Yzanga house to a small rock island jutting out from the shallow water nearby. She had fond memories of patiently tugging and pulling huge boulders so that they could serve as the building materials for the structure. She and her construction team did not just line up the stones to serve as a pathway across the water. Instead, they took what they knew of engineering into account so that their bridge had a base and was built up with supports. When they were finished, they could easily make their way across to the island without getting wet. She was immensely proud of that bridge and credited its construction with teaching her to appreciate the value of good workmanship. She was heartbroken when, as a summer storm lashed the coastline, she had to watch the stone structure give way before the fury of the thundering waves. 6
After Alva married, she and Willie K. lived comfortably in the 44th Street brownstone his father had given them. But they were wealthy only by association. All of that changed when the Commodore died in January 1877 and left Alva s husband 3 million. 7
With part of the money, they purchased 900 acres on Long Island near the town of Islip and hired Richard Morris Hunt to design and supervise the building of an English Tudor-style country house intended to serve as a hunting lodge. They named it Idlehour. 8 It was Alva s first opportunity to indulge her passion for construction to build something permanent.
Desperate to find an outlet for her creative instincts, Alva found in Hunt a perfect partner. Living and traveling in Europe had provided her with an appreciation of art and architecture. And an adventuresome spirit and desire for attention encouraged her to experiment with both architectural style and interior design. She now had the money to pay for the very best materials and workmanship. And Hunt had both the technical training to take her ideas and give them physical form as well as the patience to put up with her volatile temperament.
As they worked together, Alva developed enormous respect for Hunt, who became both her teacher and her friend. They did not always get along. Their word battles, as she called them, were legendary. They argued over both design and construction. But her affection and respect for him never wavered. The hours they spent together in his office pouring over house plans were some of the most enjoyable in her life. In Hunt, she found a creative mind, a gifted technician, an engaging companion, and an intellectual equal. 9
Hunt had barely turned over the keys to Idlehour when Alva began planning a new city residence to be built on Fifth Avenue. 10 She was unhappy living in a brownstone. Familiar with the sparkling white town homes built along London s crescents and the mansard-roofed mansions that lined the fashionable streets of Paris, she claims to have been dismayed by the crude uniformity and ugliness of the houses in New York. 11
She maintained that she put her whole soul into building her grand new home. She wanted to build an edifice that would stand as a public expression in outward and visible terms of the importance of the Vanderbilt family. At the same time, she wanted to establish her reputation as an arbiter of beauty and good taste by patronizing talented architects and interior designers. It was their responsibility, she believed, to represent not only wealth but knowledge and culture in their building projects. Her new house was to be more than just a residence. It was to be a public building, privately owned, that would provide all New Yorkers with the opportunity to expand their appreciation of architecture, art history, and interior d cor. 12
The key component of her vision was innovation. With Hunt s help, she designed a magnificent home built of Indiana limestone on the model of a French chateau, a dramatic contrast to the drab brown-stones owned by her friends. Once she had approved the preliminary design, she left Hunt in charge of the construction and went to Europe to complete plans for the building s interior.
Friends and acquaintances wrote to her of their dismay as the structure began to take form in her absence. They did not quite know what to make of the unconventional building material that she had chosen. And some of them apparently considered the figures of naked children that appeared on the fa ade of the building a disgrace. Predictably, Alva dismissed their objections out of hand, concluding that New Yorkers were not just unsophisticated and provincial but fatally tainted by Puritanism. That being the case, she was not surprised that they were incapable of appreciating the exquisite beauty of the human form and its significance in connection with the special period that she and Hunt were trying to represent. 13 Despite their criticism, she reveled in the attention that her innovations bestowed upon her. Such notice was a crucial component of her campaign to turn herself into a social celebrity.
In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, a wide variety of factors encouraged the growth of celebrity culture. Notions about the importance of the individual and his or her potential for greatness found expression in urban environments such as New York City, which were characterized by anonymity and socioeconomic mobility. It was in such settings that opportunities for the sort of performative self-representation typical of those who courted celebrity flourished. The rise in literacy, the availability of leisure time, and the expansion of the entertainment industry combined with the growth of the mass media with its focus on human interest stories, the rise of consumer culture with its emphasis on the value of commodities, advances in communication technology, and systematic image management by public relations firms and advertising executives all encouraged public interest in celebrities. 14
When Alva arrived on the social scene, seeking celebrity was a relatively new phenomenon among the members of New York s upper crust. Before the Civil War, New York s wealthiest citizens typically socialized in the privacy of their homes. They intentionally kept their number of intimate associates small and tended to shun the notice of the press. 15 Only occasionally did they allow newspaper reporters to attend and publish descriptions of their social functions. 16 By the 1880s, however, those who claimed or hoped to claim a prominent place for themselves in society expanded the number and variety of people they were willing to entertain and accept invitations from. They began, quite self-consciously, to use public spaces to display their wealth and social connections by entertaining their guests in hotels, restaurants, and clubs. They not only made themselves accessible to journalists but also hired social secretaries and press agents whose job it was to cultivate the attention of reporters so their celebrity could be established. 17 By nurturing what historian Thomas Baker has called the commercialization of intimacy, they turned their lives into public spectacles and themselves into commodities. 18
As a number of scholars have pointed out, the exploitation of the culture of celebrity functions as more than just a strategy for getting attention or making money. They argue that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, celebrities provided a mechanism that could be used to embody and personalize social, political, aesthetic, and moral issues. Moreover, fascination with celebrities provided the general public with a way to cope with a wide variety of concerns, including alarm over the increasing influence of large corporations on the economy and government; anxieties about race, gender, and class; unease about the shift toward the glorification of leisure, consumption, and self-gratification in a society built upon hard work and self-sacrifice; and the need to preserve a sense of individuality in an increasingly complex, anonymous, and impersonal world. 19 They maintain that because celebrities were acknowledged to be public figures, they were in a position to shape social values and serve as agents of social change. 20
The culture of celebrity allowed ordinary Americans to construct their own fantasies about who they were and what they aspired to be by providing them with frames of reference for those fantasies. Alva provided such a frame of reference for those who read about her in the newspapers. She embodied the ambitious woman determined to use her family s economic resources to make a place for herself and her family among the social elite. It was the scale of her efforts to consolidate her family s social position and then to use it to promote social and political reform that was exceptional. Millions of Americans aspired to make enough money to allow them to move up the social ladder, to become arbiters of taste and influential members of their communities. The whole concept of self-making was based on the belief that such mobility was possible. Those without vast economic resources could at least imitate her strategies albeit on a more modest scale. They could, for example, entertain those whom they considered to be the right sort of people and engage in public acts of philanthropy and advocacy that might merit the attention of the local press.
Businessmen and newspaper editors collaborated in the production of celebrity culture. Hotel and restaurants managers, whose establishments served as sites for events hosted by members of the smart set, hired public relations specialists whose job it was to ensure as much publicity for themselves and their patrons as possible. 21 Newspaper editors, determined to mine any source of news that might increase circulation, employed reporters whose sense of fashion, understanding of the intricacies of social etiquette and protocol, and familiarity with the names and lineage of socially prominent families allowed them to infiltrate the world of the rich by remaining as inconspicuous as possible while reporting on their activities. Knowing how to dress appropriately and which fork to use at dinner was critical for their success. Part guest, part journalist, they nurtured relationships with social leaders, their servants, and their friends to secure information in order to write society columns and feature stories describing the homes, social activities, and philanthropic endeavors of the social elite both in New York City and the resort communities that they frequented. Doing so helped to sell papers by promoting what one scholar has called an invasive familiarity that allowed those outside New York society to trespass vicariously on social territory to which they had no claim. 22
The New York World was one such newspaper. After purchasing the World in May 1883, Joseph Pulitzer turned it into a high-circulation daily that privileged the publication of human interest stories written in clear, colorful, but simple language designed to appeal to the masses. Grudgingly respectful of those who made their fortunes in the rough-and-tumble world of big business, he was ambivalent about the nouveaux riches and critical of their extravagant lifestyles. He, like the editor before him, regularly published a gossip column entitled The World of Society. He considered the rich fair game for satire and ridicule and did not hesitate to sensationalize news about their private lives and social activities. 23 In doing so, he was as likely as not to use stories about them to comment upon the social tensions that resulted from the economic chasm that separated the rich from the working class. 24
By comparison, social news in the New York Times was relatively tame. A sober, dignified organ of the Republican Party, the Times was noted for its campaigns against corruption and waste during the 1870s and 1880s. At the same time, however, it, like its competitors, regularly chronicled the marriages, deaths, parties, philanthropic gestures, travels, and polo matches of the rich. 25 After Adolph Ochs purchased the Times in August 1896, he turned it into a newspaper intended for businessmen. Featuring government, financial, and market news as well as commentary on New York social life, the Times developed a reputation for trustworthiness, impartiality, and respectability. 26
Despite the differences in their content, tone, and readers, both papers were well run, widely read, and financially successful. Together with others throughout the country who used the same business model, they present a fairly representative impression of the amount, range, and quality of press exposure that Alva was able to garner for herself and the causes that she eventually championed.
When Alva married in 1875, newspaper editors had only just begun to capitalize on the social elites activities as a way of expanding their circulation. Her wedding received only passing notice in the Times . 27 The World carried no notice at all. Enterprising and socially ambitious, she immediately began her campaign to establish a place for herself and her new family in the highest echelons of New York City s society. Toward that end she did what she could to make sure her name, listed as Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt, regularly appeared in society columns. But it was not until her Manhattan mansion was finished that she was able to exploit the vicarious interest of the public in activities of the very rich to become front-page news in newspapers across the country.
By announcing that she was about to give a costume ball for 1200 guests, she guaranteed the attention she craved. Organizing an event of such magnitude was a complicated matter. Mastering the art of choosing whom to include; arranging for the printing, addressing, and delivery of invitations; selecting caterers, musicians, and florists; making security arrangements; and then orchestrating the evening s entertainment was no easy task. She certainly had the means to hire help to deal with such matters, but in the end she was the one who was ultimately responsible for the success of any social event that she sponsored. She would spend the next forty years refining her skills in event planning and nurturing a mutually exploitive relationship with the press. In the process, she developed administrative expertise that would establish her reputation as an accomplished and successful society hostess, a reputation that would eventually help provide the entr e she needed to establish a place for herself as one of the most widely recognized leaders of the woman suffrage movement.
The Vanderbilt ball, held on March 26, 1883, was first- and second-page, multi-columned news in the New York Times . Alva Vanderbilt or someone on her staff stage-managed the lead article by inviting a Times reporter to view the interior of her new mansion prior to the event and by providing the journalist with such raw material as the name of her florist; the precise dimensions of the grand hall, gymnasium, and dining room; and the types of stone and wood paneling used in the interior as well as the names that appeared on her guest list. She even allowed a reporter to mingle with what he described as a motley crowd of princes, monks, cavaliers, highlanders, queens, kings, dairy-maids, bull-fighters, knights, brigands, and nobles during the evening s festivities. 28
The New York World gave the event more extensive coverage than Alva could have hoped for. Unfortunately, not all of it was entirely positive or congratulatory. Two days before the costume ball, the World ran a headline on page one that read: Social Dynamite: A Conspiracy of Wall Flowers, Bores, and Dudes against the Vanderbilt Ball. Satirizing the pettiness of the socially ambitious, the story alleged that a tremendous conspiracy had been formed by disappointed dudes and uninvited damsels to frighten away from [Vanderbilt s] entertainment all the expected guests. According to the article, Easter eggs were to be delivered to everyone on the Vanderbilt guest list warning them not to attend the ball if they wanted to avoid the fate designed by Guy Fawkes for the British Parliament. The World assured its readers that there was little reason to believe that the Vanderbilts guests would really be blown to smithereens. It seems, it reported, that New York s milliners, tailors, hairdressers, drivers, and florists were determined to turn themselves into a vigilant corps of independent and unpaid detectives in order to prevent the festivities from being interrupted. Their willingness to do so, the article suggested, was not so much the result of their sense of civic responsibility as it was a reflection of their economic interest. As the World pointed out, the livelihoods of New York s service providers were dependent upon the patronage of the rich. Therefore, self-interest demanded that they protect their portion of the projected 250,000 (almost 6 million in today s currency) that was likely to be spent to make the ball a success. 29 Not willing to drop the matter, the paper ran a sequel to the article the next day titled The Dudes Little Plot Exploded by The World to Their Consternation and Dismay, an example of journalistic self-promotion intended to assure the paper s readers of its ability to provide them with the latest, in-depth, inclusive coverage of social affairs in New York. 30
Such melodrama provided an opportunity for the World to comment on both the social and economic consequences of class divisions and the pursuit of self-interest. Besides providing the Vanderbilts with free public exposure, the conspiracy story allowed the World to exploit the publicity value of the Vanderbilt name in order to sell newspapers beyond what would have been possible had they confined themselves, like the Times , to a mere description of the ball. The World s pre-party commentary on the Vanderbilt gala also gave the paper an opportunity not only to express its ambivalence about the rich, their values, and their activities but also to accuse the working class of being complicit in supporting a level of extravagance that allowed members of the social elite to spend absurd amounts of money in order to entertain themselves as a way of distributing the wealth of the rich to the city s service providers and those who were employed by them. The World made the case that many of New York City s independent small business owners and their employees benefited from upper-crust profligacy and hedonism. By suggesting that such interdependence served the interests of both the upper class and the working class, the World presented its readers with a provocative commentary on the accumulation of wealth and its influence on class relations. The World s story also served as a parody on class warfare that humanized the Vanderbilts and their guests by exposing the vulnerability that accompanied the status and publicity they so valued. It empowered working-class service providers by portraying them as mediators in the competitive struggle that characterized upper-class life.
Having had its fun, the World ultimately treated the ball as a news event. Under a headline that read An Event Never Equaled in the Social Annals of the Metropolis, it published a first- and second-page, four-column postmortem on the ball, describing in detail the guests costumes, the Vanderbilt mansion, and the decorations that festooned its walls. 31 The World s final comment on the event appeared on its society page four days after the fact. Describing the ball as unmatched in its magnificence, stateliness, and sumptuousness, the World lampooned the Vanderbilts guests by teasing them about the physical discomfort they endured when they willingly chose to wear the expensive and elaborate costumes produced by New York s milliners and tailors. And it ridiculed them for engaging in a secret and competitive effort to outdo each other that resulted in what it described as the appearance of too many Mary Stuarts. 32 The culture of one-upmanship that characterized the lives of the newly rich, the columnist suggested, had wreaked a just vengeance on them by exposing their lack of imagination, superficiality, and exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Alva also got her fair share of attention from papers in Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, which, like their New York counterparts, featured news of the Vanderbilt ball on their first page. 33 The Chicago Daily Tribune alone published six stories describing the costume ball, including reference to the World s dude story. 34 While most editors confined their commentary to descriptions of the Vanderbilt mansion, its splendid decor, and its elaborately costumed guests, some, like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , criticized the Vanderbilts ostentatious display of what it dubbed insolent wealth and offensive luxury. While the social elite of New York dance, eat, and drink the night away in luxurious surroundings, tens and hundreds of thousands of the poor of New York will huddle and shiver in frail and rickety tenements, with their lean bodies unfed from their last meal, its editor pointed out, suggesting that such an unequal distribution of wealth could only evoke deep rumblings of a great discontent and the mutterings of a wide uprising. 35
Alva considered the ball a social triumph. She died believing that it was the most brilliant ball ever given in New York and that it marked an epoch in the city s social history. 36 What she thought of the national press coverage she received in her first attempt to orchestrate her public image we have no way of knowing. But what must have been clear to her as she reflected on it was that managing the press was no easy task and that however much a society hostess tried to control the information available to eager reporters, dictating what appeared in the newspapers was next to impossible. It turned out that it was easier to get attention than it was to control the sort of attention one received.
On December 8, 1885, Alva s father-in-law died, leaving her husband 65 million. 37 Now with access to a staggering amount of money, Alva, again in collaboration with Hunt, began constructing a home on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. Inspired by the Parthenon in Athens and the Petit Trianon in Versailles, she hired European craftsmen to build the house of marble, some domestic but most imported from Italy and Africa. Once it was completed, she decorated the entire house with art, tapestries, and antiques shipped from abroad.
Marble House may have been extravagantly sumptuous but it was not as large as some of the other mansions on Bellevue Avenue. There were only four rooms on the main floor off the grand entrance hall-a reception room gilded from floor to ceiling in twenty-two-karat gold; a dark, gloomy repository called the Gothic Room intended to display the most impressive of Alva s newly purchased antiques, sculpture, and paintings; a dining room encased in rose-colored marble; and a small sitting-room library whose floor-to-ceiling windows looked out to the sea. A gallery ran along the back of the house on the main floor. Halfway up the stairs at each end of the mezzanine were sitting rooms, one for Alva and one for Willie K. And on the second floor was a bedroom for each member of the family plus a two-room guest suite. The servants slept on the third floor under the eaves of the house and did much of their work in the basement. Alva considered the structure a triumph. It stood, she said, as testimony to the imagination, creativity, and skill of both herself and her architect. 38
Alva liked to think that, during the early years of her marriage, she devoted at least as much time to rearing her children as she did to building houses. 39 Just as she traced her interest in architecture to her childhood, so too did she trace her interest in parenting to her youthful obsession with dolls. She claims to have thought of her dolls as extensions of herself. Indeed, she remembered having put into their china or sawdust bodies all of her own feelings. She imagined that they could be happy or sad, angry or content. Determined to ensure their comfort, she recalled feeding them when she thought they might be hungry and letting them rest when she thought they were tired. Before she went to bed, she remembered carefully undressing both her own dolls and those of her sister in preparation for their night s sleep. 40
Alva claimed that the joy she experienced when she learned she was to be a mother, the happiness she felt when her first child, Consuelo, was born, and the seriousness with which she carried out her maternal responsibilities served as clear evidence of her deeply embedded maternalism. 41 She professed to have believed that rearing children was as much a sacred trust as it was an opportunity to engage in what she called constructive work. Her children were, like her homes, not only of her creation but also her link to the future. 42 The product of a generation raised with the idea that a woman could find fulfillment as a mother through suffering and selfless devotion to her children, she believed herself to have been more conscientious and self-sacrificing than many of her upper-class contemporaries, whom she considered neglectful. 43 In retrospect, she found mothering a fulfilling, satisfying experience.
She credited her own mother with being her role model. Despite both convention and the financial resources that would have allowed her to do so, Phoebe refused to relegate her children to the nursery. Alva remembered eating with her parents, sleeping within earshot of their bedroom, and attending their levees and dinner parties. 44 Phoebe was especially insistent that her children travel abroad with her. There are very few parents of the present day who would encumber themselves by four children, a dog and a bird when it would have been so much easier to have left them all at home, Alva remarked in retrospect. Her mother considered travel an important part of their education, and Alva believed that she and her sisters profited by her desire to broaden our minds and teach us to observe. 45
Convinced that her mother had given the very best of herself for her children s welfare, Alva was determined to do the same. 46 She bore three children in seven years: Consuelo in March 1877, William Kissam Jr. about eighteen months later in 1878, and Harold Stirling in July 1884. 47 She claimed that during their childhood she was more concerned about their welfare than her own. In an amazing feat of selective memory (considering the time she spent engaged in building projects and social activities), she credited herself with having spent her children s impressionable years entertaining them, nurturing their individuality, lunching with them regularly, closely supervising their education, and teaching them to accept their responsibilities toward those less fortunate than themselves. 48 She claimed to have devoted the same energy in shaping her children s minds, bodies, and characters as she did in constructing her beautiful homes. From her point of view, the two projects were analogous. 49
Having insisted in my own childhood on my individual liberty, I tried to give it to my children, she confessed years after her children were grown. Believing, as she put it, that if you want a thing well done you must do it yourself, she was proud of her efforts to help her children function in the world she knew awaited them. She attempted to teach them the principles of capitalist economics as well as the importance of fulfilling their philanthropic obligations by supervising a garden project at Idlehour. After the children harvested the vegetables they had planted, she purchased the produce. With children in tow, she delivered their bounty to the Trinity Seaside Home, a convalescent facility for children that she had built on the grounds of the estate. 50
She also remembered their sailing adventures on a pond at Idlehour as opportunities to teach them geography. Some days, she said, they sailed from Dover to Calais. On others, they traveled from New York to Liverpool, while her eldest son provided the sensation of rough seas by rocking the small boat. 51
In a desire to encourage the development of her children s conversational and debating skills, she instituted a children s dining table where she joined her children, their governesses, tutors, and friends during their midday meal so that they could participate in discussions of whatever topics appealed to them. In retrospect, she insisted that no persuasion of friend or occasion could draw me from this reunion time with the family. And in order to nurture her children s self-confidence and train them in public speaking, she regularly scheduled a recitation hour on Saturday nights when the three of them were expected to recite a poem of their choice before their parents and their guests. 52
At the same time, however, she claims to have gone to great lengths to indulge their various inclinations and preferences by ensuring that their educations were individualized. 53 So her youngest son, who was an excellent student, had a different course of instruction than his elder brother, who had no interest whatever in books. Tutors were in charge when they were young. She eventually sent the two boys to boarding school at St. Mark s in Southborough, Massachusetts, and then on to Harvard. 54
Alva s ambitions for her children were straightforward and class specific. She wanted her sons to become gentlemen, to understand their obligations toward those less fortunate than themselves, and to take their place in the international world of business, wealth, and social privilege. 55 Because of their father s wealth and her reputation as a society hostess, their economic and social futures were secure. As adults, they could work or not as they pleased. But she was determined that they not squander the fortunes that they were destined to inherit. 56
Willie K. Jr. and Harold fulfilled the expectations she had for them. Both worked for the New York Central Railroad, served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, and became accomplished yachtsmen. Her elder son had a less-distinguished public service career than his younger brother, who received honors for his work as a member of the British War Relief effort during World War II and served as president of the Board of Trustees of Vanderbilt University from 1954 until his death in 1970. 57
Alva s goal for her daughter was to prepare her for marriage and a life dedicated to philanthropy and public service. It never occurred to her that Consuelo might find fulfillment and a place for herself in public life as a single woman of means. Oblivious to the possibilities for independent action that were increasingly available to women who could support themselves, she was determined to live vicariously through her oldest child whose fate she had decided was to marry a man whose social position would allow her to pursue the goals her mother set for her. Consuelo s marriage was of scarcely less importance to me than it was to her, she confessed. In her future my own was in a sense wrapped. 58 Toward that end, she completely controlled her daughter s early life.
We learn of the forms that domination took and the influence that it had on their relationship through Consuelo s memoir, published in 1952 almost twenty years after her mother s death. 59 In her autobiography, Consuelo shaped Alva s image to suit her own purposes. The story that Consuelo told, a tragic and melodramatic tale of her own and her mother s making, served as the interpretive device she used to explain her life s trajectory-her transformation from a timid, retiring child into an outgoing, sophisticated, socially responsible woman of the world. In the process of formulating that story, Consuelo constructed a counter text to the one that Alva so carefully and self-consciously created in her memoirs.
Consuelo s memory of her mother bore little resemblance to the woman Alva remembered being. The product of a generation who came of age when definitions, of good mothering were changing and when conflicts between mothers and daughters were as inevitable as they had always been, Consuelo, focusing on her mother s inadequacies, indulged in an unrestrained and remarkable display of mother blaming. 60 From her point of view, the maternal attentiveness that Alva took such pride in was merely an example of her self-centeredness. As such, it was hardly constructive and certainly not benign.
Consuelo claimed to remember very little about her childhood and by extension her mother. 61 But the first fifty-four pages of her text belie that claim and testify to the bond of blood and class interests that bound them together in a clash of wills. Consuelo s description of her childhood reads like a variation on the story of Cinderella complete with a young, beautiful, but passive heroine who lived in a castle; an overbearing, terrifying, and malevolent mother figure; a loving and generous but weak-willed, largely absent father; stepsisters in the form of servants, tutors, and governesses; and a prince or two in shining armor. The only figure that is conspicuously missing is a fairy godmother. 62
Consuelo began her memoir by providing her readers with a visual framework for appreciating her powerlessness in relation to her mother. During her youth, she told her readers, she sat for two portraits, both commissioned by her mother from the same artist, Carolus-Duran. The first, she said, portrayed her as a vital little girl dressed in red velvet with a cloud of dark hair, a small, oval face, large eyes, a pert little nose, and dimples accentuating a mischievous smile. Standing before an innocuous drape, she had no context besides that of the obvious affluence of her family and, by extension, no will of her own.
The second portrait was quite a different matter. Painted when she was seventeen, a debutante, and about to go on the marriage market, it served as an advertisement of sorts, a testimony to her mother s social ambitions. In that portrait, Consuelo described herself as a remote, disdainful, yet elegant figure dressed all in white, descending a staircase placed against a classic landscape in the English eighteenth-century style meant to represent her future as the wife of an aristocrat. It was, she told her readers, a portrait modeled after those painted by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds intended to hang in the public rooms of a great country house. 63 Those two portraits appear to have served as a visual reminder to Consuelo of the impact that her mother had on her life.
Consuelo claimed that she adored her father. He had, she said, a generous and unselfish nature. She remembered him as a gentle, sweet, funny man-a dashing cavalier who always seemed to take pleasure in having fun and seeing people happy. 64
Fun-loving he may have been, but as a parent William Kissam Vanderbilt was absent and ineffectual. It was her mother, Consuelo told her readers, who controlled her life-her education, her recreation, her choice of friends, even her thoughts. 65 Not one to mince words where her mother was concerned, Consuelo described Alva as a born dictator who dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children. From the perspective of old age, Consuelo saw herself as nothing more than one of her mother s projects, an individual who, denied the right to her own will or opinions, was merely a pawn to be moved about as her mother wished. 66 Even the space of her bedroom at Marble House, which she described as gloomy and austere, was her mother s space rather than her own. Alva, she reported, chose every piece of furniture and every ornament to suit her own taste. There was no evidence that the room was inhabited by a young girl because Alva forbade the intrusion of Consuelo s personal possessions. Consuelo concluded that there was in her love of me something of the creative spirit of the artist. Placing her daughter in such a room, Consuelo believed, resulted from her mother s wish to produce me as a finished specimen framed in a perfect setting. The result of her mother s efforts was to make Consuelo feel as if she were as much an ornament as the elaborate grooming set laid out on her dressing table. My person was dedicated to whatever final disposal she had in mind, she said. 67
Consuelo s litany of complaints against her mother dated from her birth in 1877, which she noted no one bothered to register, an oversight which she claimed caused her no end of trouble when she reached adulthood. 68 The chronicle she presents of her childhood and adolescence is filled with incidents that destroyed her self-confidence and undermined her self-esteem. At her mother s hands, she claims to have suffered the embarrassment of wearing period costumes that both distinguished and, by implication, alienated her from other children. 69 When she was old enough to have an opinion about the matter of her clothes, her mother told her that she had no taste and continued to dictate what she could and could not wear. 70 Then there was the humiliation of having to listen to her mother discuss the unfortunate shape of her nose. 71 Alva habitually dismissed her daughter s opinions out of hand. She brooked no contradiction, Consuelo remembered. When once I replied, I thought I was doing right, she stated, I don t ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told, which reduced me to imbecility. 72
Consuelo found her mother s emotional volatility terrifying. Alva s violent temper was the bane of her life and those who shared it, she wrote. There was no way of escaping it. Her tantrums were, Consuelo confessed, like a tempest that at times engulfed us all. 73 Consuelo s response to them appears to have been to develop an exaggerated sense of responsibility for helping to maintain some sort of emotional equilibrium in the household. Take, for example, the evening she and her brother were permitted to enter their mother s bedroom to watch her dress for a party. As Alva went to take her jewels out of the safe, she discovered that it would not open. Consuelo remembered feeling an overwhelming sense of panic. It is not clear whether she thought that she was about to have to endure another of her mother s temper tantrums or whether, for some reason, she thought she might be held responsible for her mother s inability to work the combination on the lock. Whatever the case, she remembered running to her room and praying fervently that a miracle would open the safe. When she eventually worked up the courage to return, whatever drama had been played out in her absence was over, and her mother was wearing her pearls. 74 All was well, and nothing more was said about the matter.
Added to the emotional pain she experienced during her childhood was the physical pain her mother subjected her to.

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